Recently, a good friend gave me a copy of Daniel Anselme’s “On Leave,” a book published in 1957 in the early stages of France’s war in Algeria, which ultimately ended in France’s defeat and Algerian independence in 1962. A novel, it follows three French soldiers on furlough in and around Paris and their desperate (and mostly failed) efforts to reconnect to home prior to returning to a brutal war.
The main themes are disaffection and disorientation. The gulf in understanding between the soldier-conscripts and their families and the wider public is simply too wide to be bridged. Instead, the soldiers find comfort in drink, women, and especially in each other. Having relied on each other in war, they come to rely on each other again in the short downtime they have from its brutalities.
What struck me forcibly was the indifference of France to the soldiers. We see a similar indifference today in the U.S., despite all of the “support our troops” rhetoric. This “support” often is, as the saying goes, a mile wide but only an inch deep. Another similarity between then and now is the gulf in understanding between what the soldiers know about war and what the people think they know. The soldiers know the horrors; the people only know a few talking points. Back then it was about upholding the honor of France; nowadays in the USA it’s about fighting them (the terrorists) over there so we don’t have to fight them here.
For the troops, it’s always the same cause: preservation. Survival. Saving oneself and one’s buddies.
One soldier gives an electric speech about “when will it end.” How many men is France willing to lose in its attempt to hold onto some smidgen of colonial glory? How long will the wars in Africa go on? His speech made me think of our own, seemingly endless, wars.
All three men in this story — a sergeant, a corporal, and a private — are unwounded physically from war. Yet all three are psychological casualties. War and atrocity has already inflicted a serious toll, as all three suffer some of the less obvious costs of war and extended military service (broken marriages, family arguments and estrangement and resentment, guilt at not being able to conform to family expectations, a growing sense of fatalism).
Recognizing a lost cause, French President Charles de Gaulle eventually smartened up and pulled out of Algeria. But the U.S. today doesn’t have leaders of de Gaulle’s grit and smarts to recognize a losing hand. So America’s wars just grind on and on.
“On Leave” is a fine book. Would that it were on President Obama’s summer reading list, or on Hillary’s or Trump’s. They could all use a heavy dose of reality about war’s futility.
Now in its 15th year, the US war in Afghanistan continues to go poorly. The drug trade is up, the Taliban is resurgent, and Afghan security forces are weakening. Nevertheless, as Dan White notes below, Americans are told by their leaders in Washington that progress is steady, even if the usual Petraeus caveats (“fragile” and “reversible”) are thrown in about that “progress.” White recently had the chance to hear Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the US, speak about the war and his country’s relations with the US. What he heard was not encouraging. Sadly, the policy among America’s leaders is never to hear a discouraging word – or, never to share such a word with the American people.
Looming Failure in the Afghan War: It’s All Out in the Open
A story from some actress about marriage and divorce always stuck with me, even if the actress’ name hasn’t. She talked about how if you are head over heels in love with someone, or if you are pissed off at them and divorcing them, you still see everything about the person, good and bad. Your vision doesn’t change with emotion, she said. The only thing that changes is which aspects of that person you bring into focus. Everything is out in the open for you to see, and you just choose what you want to focus on. She’s right about that. Not just in love, but in world events, too.
The Current Official Word (COW) from the Washington Beltway is that things are going as well as can be expected in Afghanistan. That’s the official spin, and it hasn’t changed since the war began. But other things are out there, in the open, and it’s high time we focused on them.
Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad, gave a speech on “America’s Longest War: The Afghan Perspective” on April 5th at UT-Austin, at a Strauss Center for International Relations/LBJ School event. Attendance at North America’s second-largest college campus for this event was about sixty; half the attendees were students while the rest were local residents, mostly affluent social security age or thereabouts. (Rather piss-poor attendance for a war America’s leaders are calling “generational.”)
I talked briefly to the Ambassador beforehand—he was friendly and approachable, always good for a diplomat. We talked about a book I was carrying, David Talbot’sThe War Without a Name, which is the best book written in English to date about the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria, 1954-62. This book was worth around $200 on Amazon back in 2004 or so, but I’d picked it up at the Half-Price slushpile for $2 the other day, and that fact probably showed something about how serious America was these days about wars, counterinsurgencies, and learning from history. Ambassador Jawad nodded politely. He declined my offer of the book as a gift; perhaps he knows the subject too well.
The Ambassador spoke for about 40 minutes. His PowerPoint presentation wasn’t working; it is somewhat disturbing that the Ambassador has become a slave to PowerPoint like everyone in the US government nowadays. I wasn’t expecting him to say much (the usual diplomatic discretion before an American audience combined with Beltway conformity). But if you were paying attention, the Ambassador let drop in the forefront, in easy camera range, some things that normally stay in the deep dark background.
Ambassador Jawad was as upfront as a diplomat can be about Afghanistan’s complete dependence on US military and political support and his expectations that it would continue at the current level for the next several years. This despite pronouncements from Official DC about our doing the contrary. He mentioned several times that ISIL pays its soldiers about three times what his government pays theirs, and how this was a major factor in ISIL’s success. Hmmm—I guess the three to one pay advantage trumps his army’s six to one numbers advantage. The former Ambassador also complained about Pakistan’s providing sanctuary for the enemy forces, and expressed a desire that the US would pressure Pakistan to stop doing so. Saudi Arabia came in for its licks too, and the Ambassador urged that the US pressure the Saudis into doing something to stop the financial support their citizens (and government too, Mr. Ambassador?) are giving to ISIS/ISIL. The Ambassador used the term ‘realistically’ several times about various actions Afghanistan or the United States could, and should, do.
One fact got dropped that I should have heard before, and that is that this past year was the bloodiest ever for the Afghan National Army and security forces. This was the first year ever that the war did not go into hibernation for the winter; it ran the whole year round. Ambassador Jawad said that there were 7000 government forces killed this past year and that current losses ran 16 KIA (killed in action) daily. I’d never heard this one before. 7000 KIA means a minimum of 21,000 WIA (wounded in action), a total of 28,000 casualties a year. The Afghan National Army has an official strength of around 150,000 (actual troop strength is a different smaller number due to potted plant soldiers) with roughly 150,000 auxiliary/police.
Losses at this level are militarily unsustainable for very long. I doubt anyone militarily knowledgeable would give the Afghan national forces more than two years before they collapse from losses at this rate. This means things are going to fall apart there in Afghanistan like they did in Iraq, and soon. There was not a sign of anyone in the audience catching this. If they did, they were too polite to say anything.
The Q&A came up, and again I wasn’t picked for a question (actually, I was ignored, a story for another day). Several faculty asked mostly pointless questions, and the student questions were wonkish policy-adjustment ruminations hewing to the Beltway line. No sign of intelligent life there, Scotty.
After the event, I spoke to the Ambassador again. He was apologetic about not selecting me for a question, delicately deferring blame, with much justification, to his host Robert Chesney. I dumped the question I had in mind to ask during the Q&A and instead I asked him this, something that had bubbled up from deep inside me:
Mr. Ambassador, I’ve already pointed out to you the story of this book and how its cratering in price shows something about how much interest the US has in its war in your country. Doesn’t this also show a distinct lack of competence in the US ruling elites, that they choose to remain ignorant about the biggest counterinsurgency war in the 20th Century, after this many years of failed wars?
And speaking of just how much real interest my country and countrymen have in your country and people, just look at the foreign aid amounts we’ve given to your country, a desperately poor country in dire need of everything, every last god-blasted handiwork of man there is, after four decades of war and devastation. It took us five years before we gave your country five billion dollars in aid. That’s peanuts and you know it. You also have to know that it took us another three years more before we hit ten billion dollars in aid. And certainly you have to know that aid like this is absolutely critically necessary and desperately time-sensitive for successful prosecution of a counter-insurgency, and doesn’t the fact that we cheaped out and didn’t deliver this militarily essential aid in anything near a timely fashion show again the incompetence of this country’s military and political ruling elites?
Doesn’t it also again show how little regard we here have for your fellow countrymen and their problems? Just look at our aid to Ukraine, instead. We officially spent five billion up front, unofficially twice that, on the latest color revolution there, and that was all money going to white European politicians for them to piss away on parties, bribes, and Swiss bank accounts. Doesn’t that show, decade and a half long war or not, just how little your country, its people, and our war there matter to the DC crowd?
Mr. Ambassador, you talked several times today about ‘realistic’ and ‘realistically’. Shouldn’t you be more realistic about the fact that there’s been a decade and a half for us to pressure the Saudis and Pakistanis to cooperate and we haven’t ever yet so realistically that just isn’t going to ever happen? Realistically shouldn’t you and your country adjust your policy plans and expectations to reflect this fact instead of calling still again for them? Shouldn’t you and your fellow countrymen be more realistic about this country of mine and its government and peoples and its profound indifference to you and your war and our rather gross and obvious failings as a nation and as a people by now?
The Former Ambassador listened to all this politely, and then gave a little speechette about how America was a great country full of great people who could do anything they put their minds to. I thanked him and left.
So just like that actress said, it’s all out in the open, and it’s just a question of if you want to focus on it and see it. We don’t, it doesn’t look like the Afghans do either, and we all will act surprised when the big crackup in Afghanistan happens soon. Our surprise will be genuine because our profound blindness certainly is.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.